This page shows how to draw one of the two possible external
tangents common
to two given circles with compass and straightedge or ruler.
This construction assumes you are already familiar with Constructing the Perpendicular Bisector of a Line Segment.
How it works
The figure below is the final construction with the line PJ added.
The construction has three main steps:
 The circle OJS is constructed so its radius is the difference between the radii of the two given circles.
This means that JL = FP.
 We construct the tangent PJ from the point P to the circle OJS. This is done using the method described in
Tangents through an external point.
 The desired tangent FL is parallel to PJ and offset from it by JL. Since PJLF is a rectangle, we need the best way to construct this rectangle.
The method used here is to construct PF parallel to OL using the "angle copy" method as shown in
Constructing a parallel through a point
As shown below, there are two such tangents, the other one is constructed the same way but on the bottom half of the circles.
Proof
This is the same drawing as the last step in the above animation with line PJ added.

Argument 
Reason 
1 
PJ is a tangent to the inner circle O at J. 
By construction. See Constructing the tangent through an external point
for method and proof. 
2 
FP is parallel to LJ 
By construction. See Constructing a parallel (angle copy method)
for method and proof. 
3 
FP = LJ 
QS was set from the radius of circle P in construction steps 2 and 3. 
4 
FPJL is a rectangle 
 FP is parallel to and equal to LJ from (2) and (3).
 ∠PJL = ∠PJO = 90° (a tangent is at right angles to radius)

5 
∠FLJ = ∠LFP = 90° 
Interior angles of rectangles are 90° (4) 
6 
FL is a tangent to circle O and P 
Touches the circle at one place (F and L), and is at right angles to the radius at the point of contact 

Q.E.D
Printable stepbystep instructions
The above animation is available as a
printable stepbystep instruction sheet, which can be used for making handouts
or when a computer is not available.
Try it yourself
Click here for a printable tangents to two circles construction worksheet with some problems to try.
When you get to the page, use the browser print command to print as many as you wish. The printed output is not copyright.
Other constructions pages on this site
Lines
Angles
Triangles
Right triangles
Triangle Centers
Circles, Arcs and Ellipses
Polygons
NonEuclidean constructions
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